Thursday, May 25, 2023

Thoughts on Shavuos

As we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos, it is worth reflecting on the significance of this date and its impact on the Jewish People in particular and the world in general. Shavuos is the anniversary that G-d revealed the blueprint for humanity to live a life with the utmost holiness and Godliness on this mundane earth. G-d revealed this blueprint to us in what is known as the Torah. It is hard to overstate how transformative this transmission was to the Jewish People. The Torah unlocks the ability of a mortal being and allows him to live a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. The Torah enables the Jew to infuse spirituality and purpose into mundane and physical activities. The Torah has empowered the Jew to connect with the Divine even in the world's darkest moments and find that light in an increasingly dark world. In his book Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746) writes G-d created many spiritual manifestations in this world with His presence. However, one embodiment is more compelling and more intense than any other in this world. This manifestation of Godliness and holiness that one can connect in this experience is more profound and superior than any different experience. Rabbi Luzatto writes that this manifestation can only be found through Torah Study. That is another explanation of the famous words of the sages, ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם or the Study of Torah is equivalent to them all. I found this interpretation mindblowing and refreshing at the same time. It provides an entirely new and refreshing perspective on the power of Torah study. The conventional understanding of the purpose of Torah Study is to accumulate knowledge. For example, to know how to put Tefilin on his arm, he must study and be knowledgeable in the laws of Tefilin. However, there is another dimension that is entirely different and transcendent about Torah Study. It is the ability of a mortal being in this mundane world to connect with Godliness and holiness that will touch his soul to the core. For this reason, it is meaningful for our souls to study sections of the Torah that we have studied before, i.e., the weekly Parsha, or to explore areas of the Torah that may have little practical relevance. The truth is the connection to Godliness and holiness our souls connect with during this experience is so profound that it matters little what the topic is or how relevant the Talmudic discourse may be for the participants in the class. אשרינו מה טוב חלקינו! Fortunate is our lot in life that we have the gift of Torah! As we celebrate the Yom Tov of Shavuos, let us reflect on this unparalleled opportunity for spiritual experiences that the Torah offers us in the jungle of this mundane world. Have a Great Yom Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 19, 2023

A Treasured Book

A 1,100-year-old Tanach, one of the world's oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, sold for $38 million in New York on Wednesday, becoming among the most expensive books ever bought. The manuscript is the world's oldest nearly complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. It was handwritten roughly 1,000 years ago on 792 pages of sheepskin, includes all 24 books of the Bible, and is missing only about eight pages. The Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment volume containing a nearly complete Hebrew Bible, was purchased by former US Ambassador to Romania Alfred H. Moses on behalf of the American Friends of ANU and donated to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where it will join the collection. Sotheby's Judaica specialist Sharon Liberman Mintz said the $38 million price tag "reflects the profound power, influence, and significance of the Hebrew Bible, which is an indispensable pillar of humanity." If you are wondering why the buyer paid a handsome sum of $38 million for the Tanach, please listen to his words. "The Hebrew Bible is the most influential book in History and constitutes the bedrock of Western civilization. I rejoice in knowing it belongs to the Jewish people," Moses said. "It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people." As we approach Shavuos, the anniversary of the Jewish People receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, reflecting on this awesome event is worthwhile. The impact the Torah had on civilization is far beyond the Jewish People. When our ancestors embraced their mission to the Kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy People, it had a profound impact on the world. The events at Mt. Sinai were a turning point not only in Jewish History but in World History. The historian Paul Johnson wrote this in his book The History of the Jews. "Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews, it might have been a much emptier place." Jewish Wisdom teaches us about the spiritual connection one can attain through Torah Study. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto writes in Derech Hashem about the topic. He explains that while there are many different opportunities and experiences that one can have to G-d in this world, there is one medium that is more compelling and significant than any other: Torah Study. The more an individual studies Torah, the more he becomes connected to G-d. Society has radically changed since the Tanach sold by Sotheby's was written 1,100 years ago. The printing press invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century and the more recent development of the internet have opened new opportunities for Torah Study. King David wrote that the Torah is complete and perfect, and it is restorative for the soul. I don't think many would argue that our souls could use some restoration. The need is clear and the solution of a more committed approach to Torah Study is here. As we approach Shavuos, we must ask ourselves, "What are we waiting for?" Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 12, 2023

Equality for Some and Not All

Liberté. égalité. Fraternité. French for liberty , Equality and fraternity and are the ideals from the French Revolution and enshrined in the French Constitution. These values have been the foundation for everyone living with equal rights in a democratic society. On this side of the pond, the American Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, were inspired by the lofty words articulated in the Declaration of Independence that that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The common perception in these Western democracies is that discrimination is prohibited and equal rights a fundamental right that no one can deny any individual his or her rigths. A closer look at both these democratic systems reveals that this is not the case. For example, In line with France's laws on laïcité (secularism), it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion , including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, schools, and universities (except for visitors). This is not limited to its Muslim citizens. The ban on wearing religious symbols in public extends to Jews wearing Yarmulkes and Kippahs. The French Education Ministry manual for public schools sends an annual memo reminding teachers that wearing religious symbols in public schools is illegal and urging them to punish non-compliant students. In the French Canadian province of Quebec, the controversial Bill 21 prevents judges, police officers, teachers, and public servants from wearing symbols such as the kippah, turban, or hijab while at work. One may pretend the United States does not suffer from any selective discrimination. That is not necessarily the case. In the United States, discrimination based on religion is protected under Title VII and the Civil Rights Act. It is a protected class that includes race, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information. Other individuals are not so fortunate. For example, anyone that is bald, obese, or belongs to a particular political party is not part of a protected class. Therefore, the anti-discrimination laws do not extend to these individuals. The U.S. government and its courts are very particular about who may be considered a protected class. It's hard to entertain the notion that the basis of the anti-discrimination laws is based upon Derech Eretz and the fundamental belief that everyone is created in the image of G-d. Alas, that is not the case, as there are many people whom it is perfectly legal to discriminate against. One can fairly conclude that the protected classes are less about Derech Eretz to all individuals and more about showing deference and celebrating specific demographics. The modern application of Equality extends to other areas of society as well. For example, to have a company listed on the NASDAQ, one must adhere to the Diversity Rules, which state that U.S. companies have one female director and one director who self-identifies as a racial minority or as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. It's interesting to note that the Nasdaq Diversity Rule does not extend to other groups not in the protected class. Hollywood has followed in the selective discrimination path as starting in 2024, films must meet specific diversity requirements in order to be eligible for the best picture award, which is Hollywood's most sought-after accolade. The new guidelines include requirements like at least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group being in a significant role, or the story must center on women, LGBTQ people, a racial group, or disabled people. I wonder about the demonstrators in Israel that are protesting against judicial reform about the need to preserve democracy as to which utopian system they are fantasizing about. Israel has its own interesting way with the application of democracy. In 2019, the Israeli Supreme Court banned communities from having gender separated concerts, despite the desire of the attendees to have the cultural event in that fashion. It appears many in Israel fancy the notion of democracy as they do in France with an attempt to impose secular values on others in the name of Equality. The Torah and its standards have been attacked for being inconsistent with the values of Equality. For example, some have criticized the elevated status of a Kohen and a Levi. The standard of a male Kohen receiving the First Aliyah and the male Levi receiving the Second Aliyah is inconsistent with Equality and thus discrimination. There are progressive streams in Judaism that have done away with the traditional system in favor of Equality and therefore, any male or female may receive any aliyah. The Torah recognizes that people do not inherently have rights but rather responsibilities. It is precisely for that reason that a male Kohen gets called up first to the Torah and the male Levi follows him before other males can be called up. The lineup for Aliyahs to the Torah does not suggest that a male Kohen or male Levi is morally superior to others. Rather, it reflects the notion that to their unique destiny and spiritual roadmap, they may have some responsibilities that others may not. In a responsibility-centered society, one has to ask what responsibilities they have to fulfill their unique mission in life. Equality is definitely an important value when applied correctly. For those that champion Equality at all costs and are more than eager to do away with tradition, one should reflect upon the consequences that this path has thrown toward our society. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 28, 2023

Israel at 75

"Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land. The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country". Mark Twain , Innocents Abroad, 1867 כֹּה אָמַר יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָ ִם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים: וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ: There shall yet be old men and old women sitting in the broad places of Jerusalem, every man with his staff in his hand for every age. And the broad places of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the broad places thereof. (Zecharia 8:4) The description from Mark Twain about the Land of Israel referred to as Palestine, provides us with a snapshot of how Israel looked a mere 150 years ago. Then, it was desolate, depressing and projected the feeling of an abandoned country. It is with that context that one can appreciate the prophecy of Zecharia, who declared thousands of years ago that we, as a people, would return to our homeland after being in exile for a prolonged period. The mere thought of ever returning to our land, let alone having children playing in the streets, was sheer fantasy. The fantasy of the past has turned into the reality of today. Regardless of anyone's views on Zionism and how it intersects with the coming of the Mashiach, one cannot deny the modern-day miracle of the Jewish People returning to their ancient homeland. A hundred years ago, in 1922, there were under 84,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel. Today in 2023, there are over 7 million Jews in Israel!! Considering the entire Jewish population in the world is just about 15 million, Israel currently has more than half of the global Jewish population. The number of Jews worldwide, including in the United States, continue to decline for various reasons, and assimilation is the most prominent factor. The numbers in Israel continue to grow in the opposite direction as more and more Jews worldwide are finding their way back to their ancestral homeland. On a spiritual level, it is estimated today that there are over 3000 yeshivas or centers for advanced Jewish learning. The Mir Yeshiva alone has over 9,200 students and over 800 students in its largest daily shiur. In addition, there are countless shuls and minyan factories in every city, town, and neighborhood. The proliferation of Judaism and Jewish life is nothing less than breathtaking and miraculous. Recent events have highlighted the divisions that exist within Israeli society over proposed judicial reforms. No doubt, this is unsettling as people tend to focus on issues that divide one another and not the things that unite us. The Achilles heel of the Jewish People has been our inability to focus on the things that unite us. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and this controversy works itself out without too much collateral damage. Another thing to ponder is that while one cannot be naive about some tension and controversy between religious and secular factions in Israel, it's important to note the universal Jewish character of the modern Jewish state. For example, El Al does not fly on Shabbos or Yom Tov since it was state-owned for years, and the state prohibited it from operating on these holy days. Now, that is many days to give up revenue and forfeit customers to your competition. A company or country can only do that if they have values; in this case, there is a country that has a value for Shabbos. I am sure someone will be able to point out many unsavory things about the Israeli government and establishment. Still, on this particular day, I am forever grateful to G-d for increasing the Jewish population in Eretz Yisroel from 84,000 to 7 million in the last century and for bringing His children home. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 21, 2023

A Win for Jewish Education in Florida

With a steady diet of depressing events in our daily news feed, we have become worn out and disillusioned. As the global village shrinks, we hear about painful and tragic events more quickly. There is also a near disbelief that anything positive and helpful can emerge from any government entity. With all that in the background, I think a really historic and positive event for the Jews living in Florida may have been overlooked. I am, of course, referring to the recently passed Universal School Choice that was passed this month by a majority in the Florida House and Senate and signed into law by the Governor. Starting this coming school year, Florida students in K-12 schools will be eligible to receive approximately $8,000 to use towards tuition and other educational expenses, with no income eligibility requirements. Regardless of anyone’s political leanings or philosophies, the elected officials, including the Governor, deserve our gratitude for this seismic change for Jewish living in Florida. The significance of this development and its impact on our community cannot be overstated. As one of the biggest challenges in modern American Jewish life is the affordability of Jewish Day School tuition, this law will go a long way in mitigating this near crisis for any family that desires a Jewish education. Jacksonville is known for many quality public schools that are free of charge to any student. It’s hard for any school to compete with a product offered for free by a competitor. It’s not unusual for an Orthodox Jewish family with just a few children to spend over $50,000 (after-tax dollars) per year on private school tuition. It’s also important to note that it costs more to educate a student than even full tuition paid by some parents. Most Jewish schools in Florida invest at least $15,000 per student; in many schools, even full tuition does not cover that expense. This results in large deficits at the outset of the school year and puts enormous pressure on the fundraising infrastructure of the Jewish schools. While the passage of Universal School Choice will not solve every financial issue related to Jewish school affordability, it will go a long way to assisting families and our schools statewide. It will no longer be an option for someone to choose not to send their children to a Jewish school because of affordability. In an era of increasing challenges on the macro and micro levels, it’s essential to pause and celebrate this victory for our community. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 14, 2023

Why Keep Kosher

Hey Rabbi, I'm in Trader Joe's, and I see they just got this new cool organic seaweed product, and it's all the rage on Twitter. The only thing is that it has a Hechsher that appears to be the Vaad of the Mariana Islands. I researched it online, and there is a mixed review on the acceptability of the symbol. Please advise.  This question is (more or less) a fairly common one that I receive at least weekly. Gone are the days when kosher certification meant looking at several Manischewitz products in the local supermarket aisle. The OU (Orthodox Union) Kosher itself is the world's largest and most widely recognized kosher certifying agency, with over 1,261,754 products produced in more than 3,000 plants located in 103 countries around the world. That is just one kosher certifying agency in the world! There are dozens of agencies all over the world, including our very own Gesher K agency based in Jacksonville. One can now find a gourmet kosher meal on par with any cuisine in any space, from the Whitehouse to the most elegant restaurant and cruiseliner. The prominent publication of The Wine Spectator routinely lists Israeli (kosher) wine as some of the top 100 wines in the world! As the kosher industry continues to advance more than ever, it's important to pause and reflect on the true nature of the reason to adhere to Kosher dietary observances.  This week's Parsha provides an insight into this fundamental aspect of observant Jewish life.  כִּ֣י ׀ אֲנִ֣י ה' הַֽמַּעֲלֶ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָֽנִי׃  For I am Hashem, the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. In essence, the reason to maintain a Kosher diet is for us to retain our holy spirit within us. As the Rabbis explain, just as foods have physical properties, they also have spiritual properties. The physical properties can be viewed in a lab: calories, fat, carbs, etc. The spiritual properties cannot be viewed in a lab but are nonetheless present. The spiritual properties that are productive and conducive to spiritual growth are referred to in the Torah as "Tahor." The spiritual properties that are corrosive and toxic to our spiritual growth are referred to as tamei or impure. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in his famed Mesilas Yesharim the consequences of not adhering to kosher dietary laws: "The forbidden foods bring spiritual contamination in a person's heart and soul so that the holiness of G-d, blessed be He, departs and withdraws from him".  The next time you are strolling down the aisle in your local grocery store and you out a product with a kosher symbol in the cart, you are not just doing a mitzvah. Instead, you declare within yourself a desire to be holy. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 31, 2023

The cost of Internal Strife

The most effective BDS campaign targeting Israel may be unfolding before our very own eyes. The objective of the adversaries of Israel with BDS has had limited success. Still, the current kneecapping of Israel in the realm of security, economy, and diplomacy is going full throttle. In the greatest of sad ironies, this campaign has emerged internally from a growing number of Israeli Jews. Fueled by the dissatisfaction with the proposed judicial reform by the majority of elected representatives in the Israeli Knesset, this opposition has morphed into a force that is undermining the foundations on which Israel rests.  To be clear, I am not arguing in favor of judicial reforms. I am observing that there have already been consequences that have been harmful to Israel, and who knows how far this can unravel. Recently, a political opponent of the Israeli Prime Minister called upon the allies of Israel to boycott the elected leader of Israel. The PM of Israel visited the UK in London, and upon his arrival at 10 Downing was heckled by Israelis, declaring, "everyone knows that Bibi is a criminal!"  Some hi-tech companies have chosen to take their funds and assets out of Israel and relocate to countries that include Spain and Portugal. A few centuries after Jews were burned to death for not abandoning their faith and accepting Christianity, some Jews are choosing to return there because they do not like the judicial reform proposals in Israel. Most damaging is the refusal of many reservists in the IDF to serve. In normal circumstances, this would be treated as insubordination, but now some are reacting as if these soldiers are heroes for threatening not to serve. Israel's neighborhood has enemies that wish to destroy the Jewish State regardless of how judges are nominated. On the diplomatic stage, the leadership has been upbraided by its allies. Consider the following. French President Emmanuel Macron told the Israeli PM that Israel risks disconnecting itself from democracy if it pursues the planned judicial reform. Macron apparently had no issues lecturing Bibi, even though he chose this month to bypass French Parliament to force through a highly unpopular bill raising the retirement age in France. The UN has weighed in and declared that the reforms would drastically undermine the rule of law in Israel. This statement was especially rich coming from the UN Human Rights Council, which has autocratic and repressive regimes among its ranks. Who can blame the world for such a reaction when a growing number of Israelis publicly declare for the world to hear that Israel is turning into a dictatorship?  As Pesach is celebrated this week, it is worth remembering one of the main lessons of this season. An individual could not bring the Pesach offering. It must be brought as a group. Therefore, one had to seek out other people and connect with the group in order to celebrate Pesach. The larger idea is that we as a people must realize that despite our differences, we are one people and our similarities outweigh our differences. Our adversaries, historically and today, make no distinction as to which party one vote for or what one feels about the Israeli Supreme Court. There was a heartwarming anecdote that gives me some hope. The protestors opposing the reforms arrived in Bnei Brak, a predominantly Orthodox city, to demonstrate and challenge the residents on this contentious issue. What happened next, however, nobody expected.  The city's Orthodox Jews greeted the demonstrators with drinks and warm cholent, Jewish music was played, people danced, and the demonstrators' reacted positively to the overtures. It was the first time for many of those present that they met people who opposed their own lifestyle. Orthodox and progressives finally spoke to one another. It just took a bowl of cholent and some music to break down the barriers.  As we are on the cusp of Pesach, it may be worthwhile to recall the heartwarming story that occurred in Bnei Brak. The alternative path of division and discord will yield a price that will be unbearably painful to bear. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 24, 2023

Will You Answer the Haggadah?

We begin this week not only with a new parsha but a new sefer as we begin to read from the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). It opens up with the words ``Vayikra el Moshe” or “ And He Called to Moshe.” Many of the commentaries have pointed out that though it’s evident from the text that G-d called out to Moshe, it doesn’t explicitly say so as it typically does in other textual settings. The Nesivos Shalom quotes the Midrash that a heavenly voice emanates from Mount Sinai daily and exhorts the Jewish people to repentance. He questions this by asking why we can’t hear this voice emanating from Sinai, and if we can’t hear it, what’s the point of it being declared? He writes the following profound idea. There is spiritual energy being released in the world daily. Some of us make a choice to capitalize on these sparks and internalize them into our souls. This enables us to embark on a journey of self-improvement in this world and allows our soul to connect to G-d in this finite and temporary world through meaningful Torah study, heartfelt prayer, and practicing acts of kindness. Unfortunately, some of us take a look at these spiritual sparks and even experience the spiritual energy that originates from Sinai and just take a pass for whatever reason. These souls lie dormant and become atrophied and dehydrated. In life a person needs to feel as if they are being filled with purpose. Otherwise, they will feel the need to fill that void in unhelpful and negative ways. There is a powerful phrase in our Shabbos liturgy mentioned, and that is שבענו מטובך.  This is translated as “satisfy us from your goodness”. Judaism is enriching as it allows a person to become filled with holiness and Godliness in an otherwise mundane world. An individual that can utilize these opportunities to connect will be satisfaction and purpose in life. The reason we pray for  שבענו מטובך is we realize the stakes if one does not satisfy ourselves with the goodness of our faith.  We continue to be presented with opportunities to fill our souls with enriching faith. Moshe heard that call over three thousand years ago. That call continues to reach us in our daily lives. So we have to ask ourselves the hard question of how we are answering that call. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 17, 2023

A New Season Has Arrived

The Pesach season begins to go into high gear with the arrival of Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This date does not merely signal the arrival of the month that Pesach finds itself in or that Pesach is two weeks away. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is significant in its own right. In fact, the Haggadah entertains a possibility that the Mitzvah of retelling the story of the Exodus should take place not on Pesach but two weeks earlier on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. What would be the rationale for observing the core Mitzvah of Pesach two weeks before the Yom Tov begins? Is there any other Yom Tov with the core Mitzvahs observed two weeks before it starts? The basis for this conversation is our tradition's appreciation for the month of Nissan. The Mishkan was inaugurated in the desert on the first of Nissan. The date was not a coincidence in scheduling. The purpose of the Mishkan was for the Jewish People to have a central house of worship in which they could connect to God’s presence. According to Rashi, the mandate to construct the Mishkan was immediately after Yom Kippur in the aftermath of the debacle of the Golden Calf. Over 40 days, Moshe engaged in intense prayer, and on the tenth of Tishrei, G-d responded with the words, I have forgiven. The following morning, the campaign to construct the Mishkan began. The purpose of this campaign was not only to build a structure but also to restore the Divine Presence in the Jewish Community. The construction was completed in the month of Kislev, but the Mishkan was only inaugurated on the first of Nissan. This date was not chosen by accident but rather carefully selected. The Rabbis have taught that different dates have not only different meanings but also have various spiritual manifestations in this world. As the Torah states about the First of Nissan, This Month is the First of All Months for You. The First of Nissan represents this powerful spiritual manifestation in this world where the Jewish People become a Nation. This date is so auspicious because it ushers the first stages of freedom to a beleaguered nation that was subjugated to foreign rule. As we learn throughout the Haggadah, authentic freedom is the ability to live with meaning and purpose and not be subject to the will of other entities. Since the First of Nissan was such a turning point in our history, it is no wonder that the Haggadah entertains the notion that we should begin retelling the story of the Exodus on the First of Nissan. Although the debate concludes that we start this Mitzvah on Pesach night and not on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the process of preparing for this season begins as the month of Nissan begins. It is time to contemplate the question of what freedom means to you. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 10, 2023

Building a Foundation

No donation is too big, and no donation is too small. Every organization that needs to fundraise to operate has lived by this statement in one way or another. With some donors, the message needs to be that we appreciate every donation, no matter how small. With other donors, the message needs to be that we need more significant gifts to sustain and fuel the organization's success.  With that in mind, the beginning of our Parsha teaching us about the obligation to contribute to Machtzis Hashekel/ Half Shekel is quite bizarre. The Torah states that a wealthy person may not increase his contribution, and the poor may not ask for a scholarship. This defies any conventional fundraising that seeks to maximize donations from the affluent and will give the folks with limited means a break. (There was an additional reason for contributing a half shekel as that would indicate the population's size, which might explain the half shekel. Nonetheless, there might be another way to conduct a census without everyone contributing a half shekel!) It's instructive to note that the contributions of the silver half-shekel coins were applied to the making of the sockets or אדנים. The sockets had two openings in which the planks or קרשים were placed. These sockets were essentially functioning as the foundation of the Mishkan as it was literally upholding the Mishkan. There is a profound lesson on community building that can be learned from the lesson of the Half Shekel contributions. When it comes to any area of Jewish communal life, one should contribute according to their means. However, when laying down a foundation for the community, all must be equal participants. If only the more affluent people contribute, then those with more limited means will not be as invested. Everyone needs to have "skin in the game". The Torah teaches that giving and sharing our financial resources with a worthy cause is an opportunity for the donor as he has the ability to have the mitzvah of helping others. As the Talmud teaches, G-d could have easily provided for all the needy directly. He created this paradigm of donors and recipients for the donor to have the opportunity to give. This applies in all areas of Tzedaka but especially when creating a foundation for the community. Times may have changed but the lesson of the half-shekel is more pertinent than ever. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 3, 2023

Why is this happening to me?

Why me? Why, G-d, is this happening to me? These words are rarely, if ever, uttered when something amazing happens to an individual! For example, if someone gets a great promotion at work with an increased salary or gets married to a most special person, are these words uttered?  The expression of "Why me?" or "Why is this happening to me" are reserved for what we perceive as cruel fate. Why do I have to deal with this particular hardship or painful experience? There are macro events on the global stage and micro events in our daily lives that cause undue stress. It is precisely at these moments that we may ponder the unfairness of our fate in life. Can we be honest with ourselves and recall if we had similar thoughts of "Why, me" during a truly wonderful moment in our lives? Perhaps subconsciously, I think we expect perfection in virtually all areas of life. When we receive blessings and good fortune, we attribute that to our hard work or exceptional talent. When things do not unfold that way, we are disappointed with G-d and others for letting us down. The disappointment leads to us living an existence devoid of happiness and joy. So many of us barely exist as we lament the terrible fortune and raw luck that life has thrown our way.  The month of Adar and the Purim story can teach us much about attaining Simcha (happiness) in difficult situations. Our rabbis have taught us to increase our joy once Adar is here. So what is it about Adar and Purim that should trigger happy thoughts? After all, other miraculous events occurred in different months that don't call for happiness.  The story of Purim is unique in the biblical context as it's the only book that doesn't mention the name of G-d. There was immense darkness during that era as a genocidal plot to exterminate Jews was hatched and nearly carried out. The heroes of the story, Mordechai and Esther, rose to the occasion at the right moments and demonstrated faith and bravery on behalf of their people. The Megila records that after the evil decree was averted, the Jews of that era experienced Simcha. On a superficial level, it means that they were happy and relieved that they lived to tell the tale. On a deeper level, the Simcha they experienced was internalizing this idea that the blessings and challenges in our lives are part of our life's journey and greater destiny. There were various critical moments in the Purim story that Mordechai and Esther could have easily stated, “Why, me.” Truly great people do not ask those questions, nor does it deprive them of simcha during difficult times. Especially in dark moments, we must realize that we are not the victims of cruel fate. If there is even one lesson to learn from the Purim story, I suggest that we remember that true Simcha does not mean having a pain-free life. True Simcha is a recognition that everything that occurs, good and otherwise, is there as tools to ultimately enhance our journey in life and bring us closer to our tikkun and destiny. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 24, 2023

A Pure Foundation

Amid great darkness, we witnessed a bright light. I am referring to the unspeakable tragedy of the terror attack in Jerusalem shortly before Shabbos last week. A Palestinian motorist plowed into a crowded bus stop and killed three innocent Jews. Among the casualties were two young brothers Asher Menachem Paley who was eight and Yaakov Yisroel Paley who was six. Two precious young innocent children whose lives were snuffed out in an instant in an act of the most violent Jew-hatred. Their father was seriously injured and remains hospitalized in serious condition.  The family sat shiva, and it was nothing short of remarkable. The visitors who came to pay condolences traveled from around Israel to their modest apartment to comfort the bereaved. Jews from all walks of life, backgrounds, and religious observances. The family estimates that at least half of the visitors were people who did not know them before the tragedy. They came as members of a larger Jewish family. The fact they did not know the Paley family did not stop many visitors from shedding tears and weeping as they came to wish their condolences. Great Sages, Rabbis, and the Prime Minister were among the guests who paid their respects to a Shiva filled with emotion and heartbreak.  One thing that stood out was the incredible strength of the boys' mother, Devorah Paley. She said that despite losing two precious jewels, she still has strength and faith. The children were given to her as gifts and treasures to cherish. They now reached their “tikkun” (purpose of living). She recalled as she reached the scene and saw paramedics administering CPR to her son and quickly realized the resuscitation efforts would not succeed. The grieving mother called for peace and prayer. Don't look for someone to blame or revenge, as this was a message from God. She called her children that were killed sacrifices for the People of Israel. She pleaded with the visitors that came to pay her condolences and the Jewish People that the sacrifices should not be in vain.  In the midst of her heartbreak and tragedy, she was able to teach all of us an important lesson. She taught us that while the most devout and pious are not immune from tragedy, the faith that someone has in G-d will give them strength to endure any challenge in life.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 17, 2023

Faith amidst Tragedy

Amid great darkness, we witnessed a bright light. I am referring to the unspeakable tragedy of the terror attack in Jerusalem shortly before Shabbos last week. A Palestinian motorist plowed into a crowded bus stop and killed three innocent Jews. Among the casualties were two young brothers Asher Menachem Paley who was eight and Yaakov Yisroel Paley who was six. Two precious young innocent children whose lives were snuffed out in an instant in an act of the most violent Jew-hatred. Their father was seriously injured and remains hospitalized in serious condition.  The family sat shiva, and it was nothing short of remarkable. The visitors who came to pay condolences traveled from around Israel to their modest apartment to comfort the bereaved. Jews from all walks of life, backgrounds, and religious observances. The family estimates that at least half of the visitors were people who did not know them before the tragedy. They came as members of a larger Jewish family. The fact they did not know the Paley family did not stop many visitors from shedding tears and weeping as they came to wish their condolences. Great Sages, Rabbis, and the Prime Minister were among the guests who paid their respects to a Shiva filled with emotion and heartbreak.  One thing that stood out was the incredible strength of the boys' mother, Devorah Paley. She said that despite losing two precious jewels, she still has strength and faith. The children were given to her as gifts and treasures to cherish. They now reached their “tikkun” (purpose of living). She recalled as she reached the scene and saw paramedics administering CPR to her son and quickly realized the resuscitation efforts would not succeed. The grieving mother called for peace and prayer. Don't look for someone to blame or revenge, as this was a message from God. She called her children that were killed sacrifices for the People of Israel. She pleaded with the visitors that came to pay her condolences and the Jewish People that the sacrifices should not be in vain.  In the midst of her heartbreak and tragedy, she was able to teach all of us an important lesson. She taught us that while the most devout and pious are not immune from tragedy, the faith that someone has in G-d will give them strength to endure any challenge in life.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 10, 2023

The WHY of Judaism

As we once again read and study Parshas Yisro, it is a great time to review the fundamentals of Judaism. Parshas Yisro contains the Divine Revelation to the Jewish People, which makes the audacious claim that this was a national experience unlike any religion. The Jewish People accepted the Torah, and its sacred mission was embraced by our ancestors and passed down from generation to generation.  When people are asked about Judaism and its practices, the general responses are centered around the "WHAT" and "HOW." For example, most observant Jews can describe WHAT Shabbos is about. The more learned people can instruct us on how to observe Shabbos properly. There are hundreds of chapters in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) on how to keep Shabbos properly. However, there is another essential element to Shabbos in particular and Judaism in general. That is the WHY of Shabbos and Judaism. If one is proficient in the WHAT and HOW but lacks an understanding of the WHY, there is a fundamental deficiency in the individual Avodas Hashem (service of G-d). People that forget the WHY and just focus on the WHAT and HOW are in danger of having the Mitzvos become mindless rituals. If a person's relationship with Judaism is performing rituals, he is in danger of becoming "burned out." Furthermore, the prospects of our precious heritage being passed down to the next generation are at risk. Who can blame the youth and the future of the Jewish people for not being excited about what they perceive as mindless rituals?  If one focuses on the WHY of Judaism, one not only has an appreciation of the Mitzvah but the attitude and performance of the Mitzvah are entirely different. This week's Parsha of Yisro reminds us of why G-d proposed that the Jewish People accept the Torah. It was that we should become the “Kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy Nation". The basic understanding of this lofty idea is that we should become flag bearers of Holiness and Godliness in this finite world. The Mitzvahs that the Torah teaches us to practice and perform are there for mortal beings to become holy and have a relationship with an eternal and loving infinite G-d. For example, when one makes Kiddush on Shabbos, he can infuse the mundane (cup of wine) with Holiness and Godliness. The mundane world we spend time in is filled with opportunities to elevate the ordinary with holiness. The WHAT and HOW is described in the Torah in detail. It's essential to never lose sight of our WHY. As someone once remarked, "if you know the WHY, you can live any HOW." Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Friday, February 3, 2023

A False Choice

One thing that holds us back in life is embracing a false choice as reality. So many things are presented in a binary manner, and one is forced to choose between the two. It takes courage to look above the clouds and realize that this narrative is inaccurate. One well-known example is that to succeed in business, it is necessary to make compromises in Torah and Judaism. Unfortunately, popular rhetoric is something to the effect of how one can make all the necessary advances and excel in their field if they are held back by halachic restrictions!  This week many individuals from our community in Jacksonville had a first-hand experience of witnessing this rhetoric as a false choice. I was fortunate to participate in Kollel's trip to Lakewood. The participants visited and studied at the famed BMG Yeshiva, which has a student body of approximately 8,000 students. The study experience of in-depth Torah Study for the trip participants was a whole new level in being immersive and exhilarating. There was one additional stop on the itinerary that was eye-opening in shattering the myth of a false choice that we are regularly confronted. We had the pleasure of visiting a title company headquartered in Lakewood called Madison Title. What is most unusual about this company is not that it is a top-rated and well-regarded company in its industry. What stood out to our participants was how the values of the Torah are enshrined in the operations and culture of the company. The company's President in the conference room delivers a class on Daf Yomi at 7:00 am to any employees and guests. A Shachris Minyan on-site follows that. Perhaps, the most stunning example of how This value is internalized is that the company has Torah educators on staff, and company employees can reserve short study sessions during the workday for spiritual stimulation.    The notion of investing in the employees' well-being by providing perks in the workspace is popular in Silicon Valley. Google is famous for providing gourmet food, fitness facilities, and occasional massages. All of these perks are free to employees. The rationale is that if the employee is nurtured, the performance will increase. Who has ever heard of a company offering its employees Torah education during the workday to provide its workforce with a spiritual perk? The Jacksonville participants saw a company in real-time that is most successful in its field and anchored in Torah and tradition.  The next time one fancies the idea that one must attend fewer minyanim or study less Torah to be successful in the world of business, it might be worth remembering the visit of a group from Jacksonville to a  Title Company in Lakewood. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Importance of Context

One of my teachers, a prominent Orthodox Rabbi, told the following eye-opening story many years ago. He related that someone had approached his son and told him that he heard the Rabbi had said it was permitted according to the Laws of Kashrut to eat french fries at Mcdonald's. The son of my Rabbi replied that it was hard for him to believe that his father, a pious Rabbi, would have erred on such basic information related to Kashrut, and there must be some misunderstanding. But, the other individual retorted, there was no misunderstanding as, a first-hand witness, related this conversation to me."   There was some sleuthing involved in discovering what had occurred. The forum was a "Ask the Rabbi" session, and someone asked if one can eat potato chips in a Mcdonald's. The Rabbi replied that while not advisable due to the concern of Maaris Ayin (false appearance), it was technically kosher as the potato chips were kosher. A British Jew was in the audience and heard that potato chips were kosher. In the lexicon of British English, french fries are referred to as potato chips. The British guest heard that what Americans refer to as French Fries are kosher at Mcdonald's. The news of this unintended halachic ruling spread quickly, and it wasn't easy to douse the flames.  This incident underscores the importance of having appropriate context to understand complicated situations properly. The Daf Yomi group just concluded the tractate of Nedarim this week. The primary topic studied in Nedarim is the issue of an individual making a vow. There is a rule that is taught multiple times in Nedarim, and that is בנדרים הלך אחר לשון בני אדם. The basic understanding of this Talmudic Law is that one must consider the context and location of where and how the individual makes a vow. For example, if someone makes a vow, he will not drink soda; it will have different meanings and applications depending on where the vow was made. For example, in New York, the vow would include all soft drinks, and in Israel, it would only apply to seltzer (as soda refers only to seltzer in Israel).  We live in a world where there are short recordings of people making statements, and these clips get plastered on social media in seconds. People immediately jump to conclusions based on the words uttered by an individual and captured on record by someone with a smartphone. Absent from this footage is any understanding of context or background that would enlighten the viewer for better understanding. Careers have been destroyed, and misunderstood headlines and yellow journalism have ravaged families. The media feasts on these stories and we are vulnerable to buying into a one or two-dimensional understanding of fundamental issues, real people, and real life. Regardless, if one just studied the Tractate of Nedarim or not, it might be worth looking for context the next time you see a piece of sensational news.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The end of an era

It is with profound sadness that we mark the passing of Harry Frisch. Although Harry lived until he was 99, and his death is not tragic, it is nonetheless a time of sadness for the Etz Chaim community as it's the end of an era.  For those that are relatively newer to the community, it's important to know that our shul campus on San Jose Blvd came to reality with the generous support and dedication of Harry and Lilo Frisch. Harry told me numerous times that he was committed to the shul being relocated to Mandarin and wanted to see Etz Chaim flourish. He also ensured that we could relocate our synagogue to its new campus (in 1986) without a mortgage. There are not too many synagogues out there that have that privilege! The passing of Harry Frisch reinforces another layer of sadness. Harry escaped the Nazi regime in Austria when he was just a teenager. He was able to survive the horrors of the Holocaust by gaining access to place a ship that was traveling to Israel. Along with other Holocaust survivors in Israel and, subsequently, in the United States, Harry rebuilt his life with faith and optimism. Some have referred to that generation as the "Greatest Generation." They did not perceive themselves as victims but rather focused on building the next chapter in a long Jewish history story. It is a painful truth that this chapter is closing before our very eyes. The youngest Holocaust survivors are in their eighties. The day of no living Holocaust survivors in our midst is rapidly approaching. The world will be very different when no one among the living can look someone in the eye and declare, "I was there!"  With that reality that we are confronted with, what are the most effective ways to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust survivors and those who perished? There is not one perfect answer to this question. Different people and organizations have suggested a variety of approaches.  One method of education in this important area is something we experienced this week here in Jacksonville. Rabbi Joey Hamaoui and the larger Southern NCSY team organized an effort that took careful planning to bring a most enriching program in Holocaust education. The "Hate End Now" program featured a "Cattle Car." All attendees had an immersive 360-degree experience from within a replica, "Cattle Car." In addition, there was a multimedia presentation within the "Cattle Car." educating us about their personal stories of survivors. We were fortunate to host a Holocaust survivor that was featured in the multimedia presentation, and she came especially for this program. Standing in the “Cattle Car”, I tried to envision an actual experience of men, women, and children crammed together in unsanitary conditions for days. The average transport took about four days. I imagined much sadness, pain, and agony as our brethren were taken to be gassed to death. The tour lasted thirty minutes, and I was relieved to walk out of the “Cattle Car” and back into a warm Florida afternoon. I had mixed feelings at that moment. I was relieved to step out and continue with my day. I was also mindful that a few hours earlier, we buried a 99-year-old legendary Holocaust survivor. I now have an increased responsibility with the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindling. It is now up to us to ensure the "Greatest Generation" is not forgotten. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Friday, January 13, 2023

America discovers prayer

Who says America is a bereft spiritual nation? While there are troubling issues in this country from here to yazoo, there was a moment of crisis that inspired a nation to pray. Last week during a nationally televised game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, an unprecedented crisis unfolded on the field. Damar Hamilton, a member of the Buffalo Bills, collapsed on the field, and we learned later he went into cardiac arrest. Tens of thousands of fans in the stands who moments before were a raucous crowd became speechless. People watched helplessly as medical officials tried to resuscitate Hamlin on the field.  At that point, a most unusual twist occurred both on and off the field. The players from both teams banded together on the field and began to pray. A Bengals fan held up a hastily made placard bearing the words "Pray for Buffalo #3 Hamlin." Fans from both teams gathered outside the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, to which Mr. Hamlin had been taken, and collectively prayed for the young man. Suddenly prayer—the ancient activity of speaking to God in the belief that he can hear and respond—was everywhere. Top-level coaches and players, former and present, posted appeals to "Pray for Damar." The NFL on Monday night issued a statement advising only that its "thoughts" were with Mr. Hamlin and his family. A day later, the league changed its social-media platforms with those of all 32 professional teams to an image of Mr. Hamlin's No. 3 Bills jersey bearing the words "Pray for Damar." Former quarterback Dan Orlovsky, discussing the game with two panelists on ESPN, did the until-now unthinkable: He bowed his head and actually prayed—with two other commentators bowing their heads in respectful accord. The prayer concluded, and each said, Amen. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the first time ESPN had a live prayer session broadcasted by their sports commentators.  The Talmud teaches that even when a sharp knife is pressed against a person's neck, one should not give up and think that G-d no longer has compassion. The famous verse from Tehilim/Psalms refers to King David praying from ממעמקים or the depths. The reality is that not every prayer gets answered in the manner that we wish. Sometimes for reasons beyond human comprehension, G-d allows pain and suffering to occur. However, the most powerful element of prayer is not that G-d will grant whatever request we have but rather for us to feel that we are not alone. Worse than the actual suffering is to be suffering alone. When one engages in prayer, the person is never alone, for G-d is always with the person. This is what King David refers to as כי אתה עמדי  or "You are with me."  Thousands of years ago, Jonah, the prophet, went to the city of Ninveh and instructed the gentile nation to engage in serious prayer to avoid catastrophe. The people responded in kind and poured their hearts to Almighty G-d and a crisis was averted. Last week in the United States of America, a nation that is fair to say is struggling with morality and Godliness, discovered the power of prayer. Demar Hamilton, who lay on the field lifeless, was discharged from the hospital this week. It remains to be seen if this story is just anecdotal or if this reflects something about the character of this country. Regardless, in an era of one disheartening story after another, a football game played in Cincinnati stood out like a shining city on a hill. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Thoughts on Shavuos

As we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos, it is worth reflecting on the significance of this date and its impact on the Jewish People in parti...